The Norton Commando 850 was the last of the line for Norton, but was it the best?
Norton Commando 850 gauges
1975 Norton Commando 850 Mark III
Claimed power: 60hp @ 5,900rpm
Top speed: 115mph (observed)
Engine: 828cc OHV air-cooled parallel twin, 77mm x 89mm bore and stroke, 8.5:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 460lb (209kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3gal (11.3ltr)/ 40-50mpg
Price then/now: $2,495/$5,000-$11,000
Stand in the parking lot of a favorite meeting place for the local motorcycle crowd and listen. A seasoned enthusiast can tell you what bike is sliding around the last bend well before its headlight comes into view.
A high-pitched shriek announces a performance two-stroke on redline. A basso profundo roar says a Buell is arriving. A baritone hum, echoing off the canyon walls like a jet fighter coming in for a landing? It can only be a Norton. “A Norton has a comforting monotone hum, like a C130 Hercules cargo plane,” Maya Lai says, adding, “Nothing sounds like a Norton.”
Maya should know. She heard her first Norton when she was a young girl. A neighbor had a new burgundy and silver Fastback Commando, and let her ride on the back — the only passenger he would carry. There were motorcycles in the family, as well. Maya’s twin brother, Ken, had small Hondas, and Maya wanted to ride them. “I wanted to do what Ken did,” she says, but Ken didn’t think she was capable of riding his bikes, so he wouldn’t let her.
Ingenious and mechanically oriented — and clearly quite stubborn — Maya figured out how to hot-wire Ken’s bikes and ride anyway. One day, Ken caught her. “Well, Twin,” Maya recalls him saying, “If you want to ride a bike, you’ll have to learn how to fix it.” So Maya lugged a broken 160cc Honda up to her room, took it apart, put it back together again and brought it back downstairs. It ran, and Maya had a motorcycle to ride. But what she really wanted was a Norton Commando like her neighbor’s.
The Norton Commando story began when British motorcycle conglomerate Associated Motor Cycles, which counted among its brands AJS/Matchless, Francis-Barnett, James and Norton, fell apart in 1966. Norton was one of the more successful of AMC’s brands, the remains of which were gathered up by Dennis Poore of Manganese Bronze Holdings. Poore took a hard look at what was left. The Norton Atlas, a good seller in the U.S., had a powerful 750cc vertical twin engine, but it put out almost as much vibration as horsepower. Poore decided to continue the Norton brand by civilizing the Atlas.
With money too tight to develop a new engine, Poore’s team focused on chassis improvements. Engineer Stefan Bauer — formerly with Rolls-Royce — supervised Norton engineers Bernard Hooper and Bob Trigg in developing a new frame that would isolate the rider from the Atlas engine. The final result was the now-famous Norton Isolastic system, which used a clever rubber mounting system to minimize vibration, especially at speed.
The Commando proved popular from the beginning. Norton dealers found a ready audience in the baby boomers just coming of age, and sales of Commandos took off.
Although Commandos were as fast off the line as any bike of the early 1970s (a Norton 750 came in first in a March 1970 Cycle magazine seven-way test), they were popular more for their superior handling than their outright speed. In an era when many bikes had to be muscled through a corner, the Commando was famous for its ability to change lines at will. Even with less horsepower than some of the competition, a Commando was easier to ride fast, allowing the rider to shame rivals on more technologically advanced bikes.
The future of the marque seemed rosy, but in 1972, Norton made a mistake. Trying to increase horsepower without spending money it didn’t have, the company introduced the “Combat” engine. Running a 10:1 compression ratio versus the original engine’s 8.9:1, the 65 horsepower Combat — 7 horses up on the first Commandos — needed a stronger bottom end, but didn’t get it. Warranty claims for main bearing failure flooded in.
Norton engineers fixed the problem by fitting new “Superblend” main bearings and lowering the compression ratio, but the cost of dealing with the claims hurt Norton’s bottom line, and the bad publicity ate into sales.
A new 828cc version billed as an 850 appeared in April 1973, achieved by increasing the bore from 73mm to 77mm. All 1974 Commandos were 850s, and 1975 saw the final version of the Commando, the Mark III. With disc brakes front and rear, the shift lever moved to the left to comply with U.S. homologation legislation. This last version featured a large, restrictive airbox along with vernier-adjustable Isolastics. These changed the task of tightening up loose Isolastics from an evening job to a 15-minute procedure. Many Commando owners retrofit the adjustable units to their older machines.
The Norton Commando 850 Mark III also came with an electric “starter.” Norton opted for a four-brush Prestolite starter (the same unit used on Harley Sportsters) but corner-cutting at the factory changed the four-brush system to the barely functional two-brush unit that was sold to the public. Some sources say the starter was downgraded to ease strain on the starter drive train. Whatever the case, the units were typically referred to as “starter assists” because of their feeble capacity.
Unfortunately, this was symptomatic of the internal turmoil Norton was then suffering. Despite respectable sales, Norton was losing money. And when the British government demanded a loan be repaid and refused further export credits, Norton stopped Commando production. The last Mark III rolled off the line in 1977.
Meanwhile, our girl Maya grew up tall and slender, and started modeling. Still pining for a Norton, she wrote the company, enclosing her portfolio and asking about modeling for the then-famous “Norton Girls” ads. Norton’s advertising director wrote back, telling her she wasn’t buxom enough and her skin wasn’t the right shade for the sector of people they were selling to. “I went to the [Andover] Norton factory in 1991, and the guy was still working there. We had a discussion about it. He apologized with a red face,” Maya says today.
In the meantime, the next-door neighbor with the Fastback had a card for what was then the San Francisco Norton Owners Club. With the neighbor’s encouragement, Maya joined. “I became the Norton Club mascot,” Maya recalls. “I studied the manual and handed cards with club information out to people.” Because of her love for Nortons, twin brother Ken purchased the neighbor’s Fastback and gave it to Maya.
The San Francisco club became the Northern California Norton Owners Club (NCNOC), and Maya was joined by several other active women club members. Although the NCNOC was remarkably egalitarian for its time, it was not a sedate organization for its first decade. “We had beer busts — they were wild and crazy guys at the beginning,” Maya remembers. “Then they got married and had to hold down a job. Things got tamer.”
Although Maya was never featured in the iconic Norton ads, she modeled chiffon evening dresses and pants suits for a Macy’s ad — with her own Norton as a backdrop. “I had to ride Snort [one of Maya’s three Nortons; all her bikes have names] to the shoot, wearing the pantsuit. That was kind of scary,” she says.
Maya still owns Snort, but she doesn’t ride it much anymore. “Of all the bikes I’ve had, it’s the only one I’ve been hit on, twice. I’m reluctant to ride it now,” she says. Instead, Maya rides her two other Nortons; “Agnes,” our feature bike, and a 1975 Interstate Commando, “Sterling.”
Some Mark III roadsters were painted in the John Player blue color scheme, with blue and red stripes on the white tank and side covers. Considered by some to be the best-looking of the breed, when this one came up for sale in the early 1980s, Maya snagged it. “It ran well, but I took it to Raber’s and they tore it apart. They found one of the bearings starting to wear through the gearbox and fixed it.”
Maya disputes the commonly held notion that Commandos are unreliable. With the right preventative maintenance, they can be dependable bikes.
“When you buy a Norton, have a mechanic tear it down and look for obvious problems, including the main bearing. Check the carburetors for wear — Amals were meant for the bike, and you can get them resleeved. Retrofit the Mark III Isolastics if your bike doesn’t have them,” Maya says. She also suggests using Loctite to keep the exhaust flanges and other bolts tight.
Other things to watch for include wiring troubles. The wiring harness can be pinched by the seat, causing electrical problems. Upgrading to an electronic ignition system is also nice, as they require little attention once installed, unlike the stock points ignition. (See How-To: Norton Commando Electronic Ignition Upgrade from the January/February 2012 issue.)
Commandos have excellent parts availability, with many parts continuing to be manufactured by Andover Norton, which took over production of Norton parts when the factory closed. And, of course, they’re great to ride.
“Agnes handles much better than Snort, and is a perfect bike,” Maya says. “She handles well and is comfortable to ride. She’s light and easy to maneuver. And despite the Lucas Prince of Darkness jokes, she is reliable if I keep the maintenance up.” And today more than ever, she doesn’t sound like anything else on the road. MC
“This Norton has it all. Good looks, performance that’s almost frightening, brakes and handling. Like its namesake, the Commando should creep into the enemy troop’s camp when no one’s looking, get the job done, and then sneak away.”
– Cycle Guide, January 1969
“If English roadsters can be said to have a feeling, a way of behaving, a way of looking that no other motorcycles in the world can quite duplicate, then the Commando can be said to epitomize that feeling at its best.”
– Cycle World, March 1971
“The Norton Commando is still the lightest and best handling of the ‘Superbikes,’ and with the exception of not enough traction for really first class drag racing-type starts, would quite probably be the quickest, as well.”
– Cycle World, May 1972
“It is, above all else, a sporting riders’ motorcycle, and offers more sporting fun for that kind of rider than any other Superbike.”
– Cycle, June 1973
“You can flick the bike from side to side through S-bends without any protest at all from the chassis. It’s more like riding a good 500 than an 850.”
– Cycle World, April 1974
“It is a thoroughbred motorcycle with a special appeal like nothing else. If you’re the kind of person who spurns Naughahyde for real leather or who chucks havaplastic for old oak furniture, the Norton is for you.”
– Rider, Winter 1975